Grand Canyon Retrospective: Day 5- Bright Angel Snowstorm!

In September 2011, I visited the Grand Canyon for the second time in my life and a wintertime postcard in the North Rim gift shop convinced me I needed to see the Canyon in the snow. On the fifth and last day of my 30th birthday backpacking trip, I got my wish.

Bright Angel Snowstorm. We were heading up through that gap in the cliffs.

After a long, rainy, wet night in my beloved, but no longer waterproof, EMS Starlight II tent, we woke up at dawn, just in time to see the rain turn to snow. Instead of red towering cliffs, our camp was surrounded by a solid wall of white. Thrilled, I rushed to pack up so we’d be the first to leave tracks in fresh Grand Canyon snow.

Except for the leaky tent (I know, I know, I need a new one) we were prepared for winter weather. Donning all our layers, knee-high waterproof gaiters, ice traction cleats and waterproof pack covers we headed up the trail, into the storm.

Bright Angel Switchbacks, in a snowstorm

At 4.5 miles, the hike out of the canyon from Indian Gardens up the Bright Angel Trail isn’t long, but you gain more than 3,000 feet of elevation on the way up to the rim. Bright Angel gets deathly hot – many people have died on this trail from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Happy hiker! I’ll take hiking in a snowstorm over hiking in the sun any day.

Bright Angel is also notorious for crowds, but we had the place to ourselves. From the campground to the 3-mile Resthouse, we didn’t see anybody else. Then, I heard voices above us and smelled horses and five men on horseback appeared out of the storm. They all rode well; guides, not tourists, delivering supplies to Phantom Ranch. They asked us how far down the canyon the snow was falling and they were surprised to hear the storm reached all the way to Indian Gardens.

Snowstorm delivery to Phantom Ranch

In the inverted mountain that is the Grand Canyon, snow falls often on the rim (elevation 6,860 feet), but rarely at Indian Gardens (3,800 feet) and almost never at the river (2,400 feet). As we hiked up the trail, the snow began falling harder and the trail soon disappeared under several inches of powder. Even so, the well-worn switchbacks were easy to follow, especially once there were hoof tracks leading the way.

The Grand Canyon is famous for mules, but these guys all rode horses.

Between Indian Gardens and the rim are two shelters, the Three Mile Resthouse and the Mile and a Half Resthouse. In the summer months, they’re both equipped with filtered, running water. Year round, they provide a shady spot to sit and rest and a place to hang lots of scary posters warning of the dangers of hiking in the Grand Canyon.

Down Is Optional, Up Is Mandatory! Three Mile Resthouse, Bright Angel Trail

Rugged men need rescuing too.

Dial 911, Mile and a Half Resthouse

I love hiking uphill. After years of climbing mountains, I’ve got the legs and the lungs for uphill and I always delight in the way the views change as you move higher through a landscape. The climb up out of the Grand Canyon – in a snowstorm, no less – was awesome, in the truest sense of that word. We started in a total white out, but by the time we passed the second resthouse, the sky started clearing and we could finally see how far we’d come.

Storm Clearing, Blue Sky. Indian Gardens is in the canyon below.

One of my very favorite things about hiking uphill is looking back from a high vantage and figuring out my route over the landscape. From the top of Bright Angel, we had a clear view of our trek from Plateau Point, across the Tonto Bench to Indian Gardens and then up Bright Angel canyon to the rim.

Bright Angel Snow. Day 4’s trail out to Plateau Point is just visible in the center of the photo. (Click to enlarge)

Usually by day five of a backpacking trip, I’m ready for a real meal, a hot shower and a night in a bed. Not this time. Every step I took up Bright Angel was a step closer to leaving the canyon and though my legs felt strong the whole way up, I dragged my feet and stopped often. Somewhere along the way, I made a vow to return next winter, for another trek. This is one of those places that will always call me back.

Bittersweet summit, back on the rim

I’ve now been out of the Grand Canyon for just over a week and I’m still in withdrawal. I’m acutely aware at all times that the Grand Canyon exists and that if I dropped everything, I could be back in that spectacular place in less than a day. Fortunately, my worries that the outside world would forever pale in comparison have proved unfounded – in my eyes, my big backyard is as enchanting as ever. All places are grand in their own way. But no place quite like the Grand Canyon.

We’ll be back!

Thanks for reading everybody! This retrospective is a warm-up for a brand new Grand canyon series on the Havasupai Trail! While you’ve been reading these posts, I’ve been hiking down to the Colorado and back. Stay tuned for new posts from the Grandest Canyon on Earth!


About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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16 Responses to Grand Canyon Retrospective: Day 5- Bright Angel Snowstorm!

  1. Luisa says:

    How thrilling! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Andy says:

    Winter-my favourite season, in all it’s transformative beauty.
    People stand around me wearing tans, thinking me crazy.

  3. beeseeker says:

    Your snowstorm delivery photo is reminiscent of a Bev Doliitle picture – stunning (as always).

  4. Kyle Kuns says:

    I was there April 1-4 and am also in withdrawal. Amazing seeing it in snow!

  5. What a different perspective of such a warm region! Fantastic photos!

  6. Stephanie Cook says:

    Mary, Can you blog some about your photography? I’d like to know more about what equipment you use and how you compose a picture.
    Your writing and photos continue to inspire – for example, driving back from Lake Havasu, AZ, to Las Vegas, I saw a back country road on the map that I decided to check out after reading your thoughts on such things. Turns out it’s actually called the Backcountry Byway. It took me through the Havasu wildlife refuge and an old mountain town called Oatman, where the first thing you almost run into are the burros roaming the streets. It reminded me of Madrid, NM – same kind of place but with souvenirs instead of arts and crafts. A tourist trap, yes, but I had no idea it even existed and was happy to find it. It’s still got Old West authenticity because the souvenir shops are basically unrenovated – take out the tchotchkes and there’s the old floors and walls and dark little rooms.
    Plus, leaving there on the way to Kingman, you go over a pass with a view of three states – AZ, NV, CA.
    So thanks for that!
    I was thinking that you and Pam Houston should meet, maybe do some river rafting. What do you think?
    Thanks for your fantastic blog.

  7. Dan Beideck says:

    I was camping down along the river this same day. It was wonderful to wake up and look at all the snow up around the rim! We had a couple of flakes float down to us, but nothing stuck.

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  11. These photos are absolutely stunning! What did you use to shoot it?

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